August 31, 2017 10:00 am JST

In Yingluck's absence, the Thai junta courts her supporters

Former PM's flight may be welcome news for generals aiming to build national unity

HIROSHI KOTANI, Nikkei staff writer and MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent

Yingluck, seen in Bangkok on Aug. 1, is believed to have fled to Dubai. (Photo by Hiroshi Kotani)

BANGKOK Thailand's military government has hammered out a 68 billion baht ($2.04 billion) infrastructure plan that many see as an attempt to draw support away from former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The plan was announced just as the trial of Thaksin's younger sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, was coming to a head. The verdict on her responsibility regarding a botched rice subsidy program was due on Aug. 25, but Yingluck reportedly fled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where Thaksin resides.

Thaksin is in self-imposed exile, having fled the country to avoid corruption charges. His government, like that of his sister, was ousted by a military coup, in 2006.

Following Yingluck's flight, the junta is expected to step up efforts to chip away at the Shinawatra clan's support base.

Most media reports say Yingluck went to Dubai via Cambodia and Singapore. The Nation quoted a senior military official as saying that she had arrived in Dubai and may proceed to the U.K.

There are rumors that the military may have helped Yingluck leave the country.

Whether that is true or not, a sense of crisis is building within the Pheu Thai party, which Thaksin founded and his sister led to electoral victory in 2011. Although Yingluck no longer holds a key post, she is still widely respected as Thaksin's sister. The Bangkok Post reported on Aug. 27 that Pheu Thai leaders have recognized that her absence is likely to dent the party's popularity.

CLEAR DISPARITY Yingluck fled just days after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and cabinet members visited Thaksin's northeastern stronghold of Nakhon Ratchasima. During the visit, on Aug. 22, he endorsed an infrastructure package that includes a 33 billion baht highway construction project.

Many of the projects under the plan -- such as partial financing for a high-speed railway using Chinese technology and the elevation of conventional train tracks -- will benefit the northeast.

While in Nakhon Ratchasima, Prayuth conceded that the region is deprived and pledged to improve the situation.

The political divisions that have split Thailand are undeniably connected to economic disparity. The northeastern part of the country posted a per capita gross regional product of about 75,000 baht in 2013, while the northern region logged some 98,000 baht. The figures for these Thaksin-friendly regions were less than a quarter of that for the Bangkok metropolitan area.

In the 2011 general election, the Yingluck-led Pheu Thai party pledged to help these regions -- in part with the ill-fated "rice-pledging" scheme, under which the government would pay 50% above the market price for all rice produced during the annual harvest. The party's landslide victory reflected the discontent of those voters who felt left behind by Thailand's development.

The rice program was implemented soon after Yingluck's government came to power, and farmers enjoyed a rare windfall, selling plain white rice for 15,000 baht ($450 at current exchange rates) per ton and 20,000 baht per ton for fragrant jasmine rice. Spending on the program was equivalent to 1% of gross domestic product, said the World Bank.

The program ran into trouble after the government, saddled with a growing mountain of rice, was unable to sell it in the global market at a profit.

During her recent trial, Yingluck drew large crowds whenever she appeared at the courthouse. When she failed to arrive for the verdict on Aug. 25, Poonsak Udanon, a farmer from Nakhon Phanom in the northeast, said he was "sad and worried" about the embattled former prime minister. The 75-year-old defended the Yingluck government's rice-subsidy scheme, and said that the former prime minister was "facing injustice" and being bullied. Poonsak was among thousands of supporters who had gathered outside the courthouse in northern Bangkok.

SAME OLD STORY? The dramatic turn of events fits a familiar narrative, according to Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank.

The standard practice of Thailand's political elite is to "take a harsh approach and lay down threatening conditions their adversary must abide by," Kan said. "Then, they tend to open the door for the adversary to get off the stage -- the least damaging option for the whole elite circle."

Yingluck's flight provided a "way out for both sides," one that helped avert possible backlash from her supporters if the court had found her guilty.

A likely 10-year jail term for Yingluck, a popular and photogenic figure who drew huge crowds when she toured the country, troubled the military regime, political insiders say. One senior minister feared the sentence would transform her into a political martyr and make her the Thai equivalent of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi.

With Yingluck out of the picture and the Pheu Thai weakened, the junta faces a political order more to its liking. The generals are now said to be preparing to speed up efforts to bridge the country's deep political divides -- a process that a verdict against Yingluck had threatened to derail. A committee packed with military officials is drafting a unity "contract," a three-page document of principles aimed at winning support from across the political spectrum.

But moving beyond military propaganda to courting public support will prove a test for the government. While the military is hoping that Yingluck's exit will precipitate a political realignment among the voters, there is skepticism about a major shift in sentiment. As one Pheu Thai official said, "The military is misreading a polarized Thailand."

Nikkei staff writer Yukako Ono contributed to this report.

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